Saroj Khan Never Stopped Dancing
A file photo of Saroj Khan (centre), with Bollywood actors Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla, in Mumbai. (Photograph: PTI)

Saroj Khan Never Stopped Dancing

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After the first screening of Devdas (2002), director Sanjay Leela Bhansali recounts, he and lead actor Aishwarya Rai went to the hospital, to visit the film’s choreographer Saroj Khan, who was in the Intensive Care Unit and barely conscious. She was hazily aware of her visitors and when she realised who they were she had only one question: “Dola Re Dola pe seeti baji ki nahi?” By then Khan was used to hearing the audience whistle at her choreography, including in the song Nimbooda in Bhansali’s earlier Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999).

“That is the madness of Saroj Khan, that is why Saroj Khan is who she is,” the director says in Nidhi Tuli’s 2012 documentary The Saroj Khan Story.

In, Maar Dala, the other big hit from that Bhansali film, Khan required her dancer to have a different expression for every repeat of the two words, the director says, adding that working with her was like going to dance school. “She operates completely on instinct.”

Khan, a film choreographer who did everything from scandalising a nation with her raunchy choreography in Choli Ke Peeche in Khalnayak (1993) to giving a lecture-demonstration on dance at the purist Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai, died in Mumbai on Friday. She was 71 years old.

Filmfare created the new category of best choreographer for Khan after Ek Do Teen in N. Chandra’s Tezaab (1988). Before accepting the award, Khan danced gracefully to the number on stage. She thanked director Subhash Ghai who presented her with the award. “Three cheers for this little fat girl who dances better than many actresses,” Ghai said to the audience. It was a different world.

The world may have changed—Ghai would never get away with fat-shaming a colleague in public today—but the videos of the Hindi songs Khan choreographed decades ago still draw millions of eyeballs that would be the envy of any millennial YouTube superstar.

In fact one of them even did a brilliant rap remake of Choli Ke Peeche, turning it into an anthem for body positivity.

I commemorated Khan’s death by re-watching Tuli’s film. You should too. Most of the anecdotes in this piece are from the film.

A file photo of Saroj Khan, teaching dance steps to students, in Sangli. (Phorograph: PTI)
A file photo of Saroj Khan, teaching dance steps to students, in Sangli. (Phorograph: PTI)

Dola Re, featuring Rai and Madhuri Dixit, was voted the greatest Bollywood dance number of all time in a poll a couple of years ago. Khan won more than a dozen awards for the song and, 13 years later, when Bhansali tried to recreate the magic of that epic dance-off in Bajirao Mastani's Pinga, with Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra, critics mostly dismissed the effort (sorry Remo D’Souza).

The Indian Express film critic Shubhra Gupta says Khan’s choreography was a gift that gave a leg up to Hindi cinema’s biggest actors, from Sridevi (Hawa Hawai and Nau Nau Chudiyan), and Rai (Nimbooda) to Kajol (Mehndi Lagaa Ke Rakhna). “As for Dixit, Khan’s largesse was endless. As much as she was the Ek Do Teen girl, she was the Dhak Dhak girl, and when she asked Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai…all hell broke loose,” says Gupta. In fact, Dixit and Khan worked together on too many hit songs to list such as Channe Ke Khet Main whose signature 360-degree move has been a firm favourite for a quarter of a century.

Beta movie featured one of Saroj Khan’s biggest hits in the song Dhak Dhak Karne Laga
Beta movie featured one of Saroj Khan’s biggest hits in the song Dhak Dhak Karne Laga

That Choli Ke Peeche was banned on Doordarshan and All India Radio is known to most but in Tuli’s film, Khan recounts a lesser-known anecdote about Dhak Dhak, which was released a year earlier. The censor board wanted cuts on the “deliberate movements”—Dixit takes chest heaving to a new level in the song—and Khan tagged along for the meeting.

One board member was wearing a translucent Lucknowi Chikan kurta and high heels, Khan recalls. Khan asked her to stand up and walk so she could demonstrate something. “When you wear high heels, your hip moves. Now you’re shaking your hips “deliberately”, Khan told her, arguing that the sound dhak dhak was the sound of the heart. “And where is my heart?” The censors were convinced by her argument and let the song pass, Khan says in Tuli’s documentary.

It’s easy to restrict Khan’s contribution in modern India as a lead player in the obscenity and censorship battles that have played out in recent decades, but she was more than that.

She made it to the top of the ladder in a testosterone-ruled world by sheer hard work and talent.

“I have laboured too hard to reach this standard,” she says in the film.

Her parents came from Karachi during the Partition and she grew up in one room in a Public Works Department chawl attached to the Mahim police station in Mumbai. When she was three, her mother took her to the doctor because she was worried that her daughter kept looking at her shadow on the wall and moving her hands. “The doctor said what’s the big deal, she likes dancing, put her in the film industry,” Khan says in Tuli’s documentary. And that’s how she began her film career as a child actor.

By age 10, she was in that awkward suspended space between child and adult actor. So she made her debut as a group dancer in the classic Madhubala number Aaiye Meherbaan. If you can tear your eyes away from Madhubala, Khan is easy to spot in the foreground, dressed as a boy wearing a checked shirt and cap. In a qawwali number in Taj Mahal, the late makeup artist Pandhari Juker noticed her expressive eye and hand movements and asked the director to move her from the side to the front. If I do that, the director replied, nobody will look at the lead.

Tuli’s film captures the anguish in Khan’s personal life, her lack of communication with her children, and the loss of her daughter in 2011.

Work was Khan’s balm, her release from reality.

She was barely a teenager when she married choreographer B Sohanlal and learned classical dance. She worked as his assistant for a decade, breaking away soon after he walked out on her and her six-month-old son. She had tried hard to be the perfect wife and when he left, she recalls in the film, “I took my son, went home, told my mother that man is not entering my house.” She rubbed off the big bindi she had worn through her marriage, undid her hair, and, “that same night, I went for a dance.”

She never stopped dancing.

Priya Ramani is a Bangalore-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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